Contemporary Literature 46.2 (2005) 346-357
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Rereading Charles Tomlinson
Since 1988, when the first book-length study of Charles Tomlinson appeared, critics have developed a widely held set of propositions about his poetry.1 Among these is the notion of Tomlinson as a writer intrigued by the act of perception itself, a poet more absorbed by physical surfaces than by psychological depths. A related proposition is that Tomlinson, who happens to be a graphic artist as well as a writer, is a highly visual poet whose work is aesthetically and ethically grounded in the notion of "right seeing"—a trust in the outward-looking, carefully disciplined eye rather than the inward-gazing mind (critics often cite the title of Tomlinson's 1958 collection, Seeing Is Believing, as emblematic of this concentration). Another well-established [End Page 346] notion is that Tomlinson is, above all, a writer of great reticence—a man concerned, as he himself has put it, with viewing the world "somewhat self-forgetfully, putting aside the more possessive and violent claims of personality."2 Tomlinson is sometimes cast, not altogether unjustly, as a sort of anti–Dylan Thomas, a rather staid poet, little interested in ecstatic or other extreme forms of emotional experience.
Tomlinson's work has also been classified, perhaps too readily, into neat stages of chronological development: the "early" work through, say, 1960, with its intense, if somewhat narrow, focus on visual perception; the "middle" work of the 1960s, with its gradually broadening interest in people; and the "later" work, of the 1970s and after, in which Tomlinson demonstrates a heightened interest in questions of history and culture and gradually develops a more "personal" voice. One other well-established proposition is that Tomlinson is the least English of English poets. While several critics—Brian John in particular—have documented Tomlinson's affinities with British Romantic poetry, most have explored in greater depth the decisive influence of such American poets as Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos Williams. While Tomlinson has written widely about his debt to these figures (he knew Moore and Williams personally), his American antecedents have sometimes been overemphasized, drawing attention away from what makes his poetry unique.3
Neither of the books discussed here—Richard Swigg's Look with the Ears: Charles Tomlinson's Poetry of Sound and Judith P. Saunders's The Poetry of Charles Tomlinson: Border Lines—sets out to overturn these well-established critical propositions about Tomlinson's work. Both books do offer fresh perspectives on the poetry, however, rereading Tomlinson in ways that challenge established [End Page 347] approaches and highlight hitherto unexplored or undervalued aspects of his work.
Look with the Ears is Richard Swigg's second book on Tomlinson. His first, Charles Tomlinson and the Objective Tradition, placed Tomlinson in an Anglo-American poetic tradition that demonstrates a "special regard for the world in its solid, separate otherness—for a plurality of phenomena independent of our egotistic projection and unblurred by myth or symbol."4 In this earlier book, Swigg explores various poetic influences on Tomlinson, including American modernism, and discusses twentieth-century poets whose work is analogous to Tomlinson's. Look with the Ears—the title comes from a Tomlinson poem—covers similar ground, especially in its first chapter, where Swigg explores the influence of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Hart Crane, Stevens, and Moore, poets Tomlinson emulated in reaching "towards an acoustic vivifying of speech" in his earliest poetry (14). Swigg shows, interestingly, that the influence of these poets is apparent even in Relations and Contraries (1951), Tomlinson's first book, which has heretofore received little critical attention, and which Tomlinson himself has dismissed as apprentice work. In later chapters of Look with the Ears, Swigg discerns a range of other influences, from John Ruskin and Williams to the poets Fyodor Tyutchev and Antonio...